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Shopping for Porcupine: A Life in Arctic Alaska Paperback – April 28, 2009

4.9 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In a lovely memoir, writer and photographer Kantner (author of the novel Ordinary Wolves) shares scenes from life in Alaska, from his childhood in the remote tundra, where his parents lived off the land in an isolated, "semi-Eskimo existence," to his current home, the small town of Kotzebue, with his wife and daughter. Kantner reflects on wilderness, global warming and human encroachment, the changes that slowly make their way to the tundra ("the snowmobile and the demise of working dogs was a major tipping point") and the hard reality behind the American Dream: "as in the Old West, it is what we've lost that marks who we are much more than these things we've gained." While turning in a thoughtful and captivating memoir of subsistence living, isolation and uncertainty ("There was always meat but questions too: What would happen if our dad fell through the ice...?), he documents the wisdom of the disappearing Inuit culture his dad revered, and locates its place in modern life. With a sensitive, graceful voice and his own stunning color images, Kantner proves an appealing and talented artist.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Kantner’s gripping first book, the novel Ordinary Wolves (2004), embodied a unique perspective on Alaskan life. Now the Whiting Award–winning author shares true stories of his own tundra experiences in a book of bracing essays and beautiful photographs. The son of intrepid, back-to-the-land free spirits from Ohio, Kantner, born in an igloo in 1965, dreamed of becoming a great hunter in the Eskimo tradition, but most Inupiaq eagerly embraced mainstream American culture and technology. Indeed, paradox and loss abound in Kantner’s riveting and provocative tales of hunting caribou and moose, and in his poignant profiles of elders with vast knowledge of the tundra who are being displaced by the results of climate change, from rising seas to melting permafrost and treacherously thin ice. Suspense and heartache are matched by wry humor and outrage, and all is infused with Kantner’s humility and deep respect for the wild as he decries the practices of high-tech trophy hunters, and maps his own metamorphosis from trapper and hunter to writer and photographer. Crafted with the precision and nerve acquired by living off the land, this is a powerful and important book of remembrance, protest, and warning. --Donna Seaman --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Milkweed Editions; First Trade Paper Edition edition (April 28, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1571313117
  • ISBN-13: 978-1571313119
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 6.5 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #406,179 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
When I saw that Kantner had a second book, I was skeptical. It seemed to come too hard on the paws of "Ordinary Wolves." I felt there'd be no way it was as good as "Ordinary Wolves", his first book and an instant Alaskan classic, that "Porcupine" would be just cashing in on the critical acclaim of "Wolves".

How wrong I was.

The non-fiction account of "Porcupine" gives Kantner both more and less latitude with characters and stories than "Wolves". In "Porcupine" he provides us the true backstory to the amazing story-line in "Wolves", in many ways both more satisfying and more interesting than his fiction. Here we can read the real-life version of living in a sod igloo as a youngster, the real people that inspired the cast of characters in "Wolves, real landscapes and interactions with them. After reading "Shopping for Porcupine" I had to re-read "Ordinary Wolves" and found it even better the second time.

The photos are stunning, but I like the writing more as Kanner's words convey non-visual emotions that photos miss.

I look forward to his next book, whatever it might be, as his bush upbringing offers us all a simultaneously fresh but surprisingly shared perspective on all things.

"Shopping for Porcupine" is well worth $30, if for no other reason than it will prompt this wonderfully gifted artist to write still more.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Seth Kantner's second book, "Shopping for Porcupine: A Life in Alaska," is part autobiography, part historical narrative, part environmental treatise. His blend of the three creates a wonderful sense of place, a wilderness adventure and above all, an understanding of the land that is Alaska above the Arctic Circle.

Born in 1965, Kantner's 43 years on this earth, most of it lived in Alaska's north country, chronicles a pace of change--technological change, environmental change and cultural change--at a dizzying speed. The changes over his 43 years eclipse the changes of centuries. The proliferation of "Snow-Gos" (snowmobiles), replacing dog-teams, dog-sleds and mushers, the arrival of satellite television, the move to a cash-based economy from subsistence hunting, gathering and fishing--these changes have occurred in Alaska's north country since the 1960's.

In Seth Kantner's life, he lives the transition from the old ways of hunting and fishing, of dog-power and of a quiet life in the bush. He interprets this for readers in a style so gentle, so subtle, that it creeps up on you before you realize how radical and rapid these changes have been.

"Shopping for Porcupine" includes a generous helping of utterly fantastic photographs of Alaska's north county. It is also a tribute the the traditional Inupiaq subsistence culture and way of life that with the passing of the elders--all of whom in 2008 are about 60 years and older -- will soon exist no more.

In 2001, I flew to Kotzebue, which is North America's largest village above the Arctic Circle. Kotzebue is the jumping-off point for wilderness trips into the northwest quadrant of Alaska. Kantner's description of life in Kotzebue and in surrounding native villages is right on the money.
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Format: Hardcover
Shopping for Porcupine is a beautiful, thought-provoking book that defies genre.
It is more than an autobiography of Seth Kantner, who was born and reared in a tiny, mouse-infested sod igloo on a bluff above the Kobuk River in arctic Alaska. It is also a collection of essays and articles Kanter has published elsewhere. The result is a wonderful story of a boy growing into a man in one of the remotest places on earth, but it is also a glimpse into the lives and society of old-time Alaskans, both native and white, and how the 21st Century is warping the old ways. The book is a passionate statement about an environment in flux and in peril. It is also a love letter to an impossibly beautiful, brutal and unforgiving land.
Kantner's splendid photographs add greatly to his colorful and sensitive stories about pioneers, trappers, hunters, and the creatures he encounters in the far north. The striking images and Kantner's own gentle humor and insight seem to soften the often hard realities he writes about.
After reading Kantner's excellent novel, Ordinary Wolves, and this non-fiction work, Shopping for Porcupine, it became apparent that to call one fiction and the other real is plain silly. Kantner tells the truth in both. Sometimes his truth is hard to take, as when he describes "hunters" who fly onto the remote tundra to slaughter wolves from speeding snowmobiles. Sometimes it is honest and endearing as when Kantner flies with his wife and daughter to a gala event in New York City to receive a prestigious literary award and the best he has to wear are clean jeans and a Banana Republic T-shirt.
Kantner is modest about his own skills and toughness. He is more giving, more complimentary to others. The result is that Seth Kantner is a man you want to know better. A good beginning is to read his books, visit his website. You'll be glad you did.

--Dave Gilbert
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Format: Hardcover
Seth Kantner's book, Shopping For Porcupine, is a viscerally real collection of portraits and recollections of life on northwestern Alaska's Kobuk River, from the late 1950's through to the present day. Kantner's folks were 'outsiders' when they settled on the Kobuk, to be followed by many more. Most have moved on, but Seth - who was born in his family's sod iglu - has remained for over 40 years. His dad's connection to the land, the Inuit culture and unfettered subsistance lifestyle rubbed off on Seth, and he has carried on those traditions while coping with the inescapable intrusions of modern Western life.

I especially appreciated the honest and literally wrenching descriptions of the changes in the land, the people, the culture and the climate, that over time serve to remind us of the impermanence of anything in this world. Yet Kantner shows us that not all change is beyond our power to control or at least influence -- although simply living by example is not always enough, and speaking up can be a little like banging a pot to scare a bear away: now he knows where you are.

I have a snapshot in my mind of the upper Kobuk during the years I lived there - many of the same people and the same lifestyle that Seth describes here so accurately. Coupled with the stories and lore from before my time, that's how I see the place and that's how I wish, in a perfect world, it could remain. The changes I hear and read about are confounding and upsetting even to me, who spent a relatively short time there. The more so for Seth Kantner, whose whole life is invested in the place. Clearly the conundrum is to decide what change to accept gracefully and what to challenge, vocally and adamantly.
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